Daniella Toosie-Watson


InsideOut’s Writer-in-Residence Program gives students a space to be reminded of their power.

Daniella is a Writer-in-Residence who brings her background as a poet, visual artist and educator to her work with elementary school students through InsideOut. Beginning as a University of Michigan Civitas Fellow in 2018, Daniella has continued to incorporate imaginative and engaging activities into her classrooms. Daniella’s Poetry Portal activity, which she developed her first year with InsideOut, has been an especially big hit with her students:

The Poetry Portal is the opening and closing ritual I use for elementary school students. I have them stand if they are able to stand. (If they are unable to stand, I assure them that they can enter the poetry portal however works for them; I often encourage them to use their arms to swim in, or use their big, big brains to think their way in.) Then, I tell them that their pointer fingers are now officially magic pointer fingers–the key to unlocking the portal. I have them make a big circle with their finger and then hop inside (or think or swim their way inside if hopping is not an option).

I tell students that inside the Poetry Portal, they can be anyone they want to be. I also tell them that they can go anywhere they want to go. In one of my classes, we decided we were going to go to a poetry lounge in Mexico, and that’s where we used our imaginations to go and write.

Students LOVE this–it really helps engage their imaginations. On the days I forget to open the portal, students will often stop me and say, “Wait, we didn’t enter the portal!” 

An illustration of the Poetry Portal by an InsideOut student

Another of her students’ favorite moments was a mystery box lesson that featured a special virtual classroom visit from Daniella’s pet chinchilla. She describes how this lesson helped encourage her students to think creatively about asking questions through poetry. 

When I revealed the chinchilla, Squeakers, PhD in all things cute, the collective gasp was to live for. I then contextualized what in the world a chinchilla had to do with poetry. With poetry, you get to ask so many questions: questions about the world, questions about yourself, even questions about a chinchilla. For their poems, I had students ask Squeakers questions, encouraging them to think outside of the box with questions about his family, if he could travel, where would he go–all kinds of things. After that lesson, I would continually get messages in the chat box asking when Squeakers was going to make a reappearance.

In addition to the fun elements Daniella brings to her classes, she also emphasizes the importance of establishing safe and respectful spaces by involving her students in creating a community agreement about classroom standards. Daniella shares how she also keeps each class flexible, however, to prioritize the well-being of her students and ensure everyone feels comfortable creating and discovering together: 

I prioritize creating a low-anxiety classroom environment through humor and affirmation, which enables students to feel comfortable and enables me to challenge them to create bravely, explore their sense of wonder, and perform at their highest capacity. It is also important, however, that students understand that they are still valued when they are unable to perform at their best. When students feel seen and valued, they are more likely to engage. 

I usually do an activity to gauge how students are feeling each day so that I can adjust the lesson as I go along according to energy levels, or see if I need to incorporate more time for self-care techniques as opposed to having them work past their capacities. 

Daniella says that InsideOut’s In-School program ultimately “gives students a space to be reminded of their power.” Whether it’s the courage to participate for the first time, turn on their camera, or share a poem with the class, Daniella says it’s always special to see how each student grows during the program. She shares how one of her students found the power and confidence to write again through InsideOut: 

In one of my 4th grade classrooms when we were still in person, there was a student who would not participate in the lessons and writing activities I brought into class. One day, I asked him how he was feeling and why he did not want to write. Asking that I not say anything, he explained a time when he was to read on stage in front of his peers but froze and couldn’t do it. Since that day, he said, he had a hard time participating in class and doing his homework. I told him that if he wrote something for my class, he didn’t have to share anything, and that the choice to either share or not share gave him power. He replied, “I buy that,” and when we were finished talking, he began to write.